NEW YORK CITY -- Midway through his Wednesday night (Oct. 10) headlining set on the inaugural CMT on Tour 2012 show, Jake Owen neatly summed up his situation, proudly informing the sold-out crowd at Times Square's Best Buy Theater, "Five years ago I played this stage," recalling CMT on Tour 2007. "I was the opening opening act for Sugarland. Five years later, we sold this sucker out!"
To say that a lot has happened in Owen's world over the last few years would be an almost prosecutable case of understatement. Not only has he graduated from well-received newbie to chart-topping platinum-seller, he's also undergone an artistic evolution that's striking in both its scope and its speed.
Between his 2006 debut, Startin' With Me, and his new Endless Summer EP, Owen has gone from rough-edged, rock-tinged Outlaw anthems to feel-good pop/rap/country amalgamations. But instead of alienating any followers at each musical detour along the way, he's somehow grown his audience to an almost exponential degree.
During the opening date of CMT on Tour: Jake Owen -- The Summer Never Ends, his first-ever top-billing show in New York City, Owen offered up the musical equivalent of one of those time-lapse videos where you watch winter give way to spring over the course of 30 seconds.
After sets from two duos on the rise -- Owen's cohorts Florida Georgia Line, who guest on the Endless Summer track "Summer Jam," and country-rock craftsmen Love and Theft -- Owen's opening salvo showed off two of his most streamlined, hook-filled rockers: recent Top 10 tune "The One That Got Away" and "Surefire Feeling." Segueing into his very first hit, "Yee Haw," Owen name-checked Merle Haggard but sounded more like ZZ Top taking a trip to Nashville. The still-unreleased "1972" kept the momentum of that mood moving, as the 31-year-old Owen sang the praises of an era well before he was born, with lyrics saluting Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, and classic-rock riffs to match.
Owen allowed the capacity crowd to catch its breath for a minute by shifting into midtempo for "Alone With You," a No. 1 single from last year's Barefoot Blue Jean Night before taking a twangier turn with the banjo-laced "Keepin' It Country" and the rather Eagles-ish country-rock of his 2010 Top 40 tune "Tell Me." After making the aforementioned observation about his CMT on Tour history, he took the audience back to his opening-act days with the regret-soaked ballad that gave Owen's debut album its name.
"Anywhere With You" led into the funky syncopation of the Endless Summer song "Steal My Kisses," momentarily quoting the riff from '70s funksters the Average White Band's "Pick Up the Pieces," and allowing Owen's fans to imagine what might have happened if '90s funk-pop heroes the Spin Doctors had made their way to Music City. After introducing guitarist David Wallace, Owen surveyed the stage and noted, "All these guys have been with me since day one, so it's a headline tour for all of us, man."
In the midst of his country-rap rave-up "Summer Jam," for which he naturally invited Florida Georgia Line back, Owen jumped off the stage for a few high-fives, and his heartthrob status was immediately illuminated as an unmistakably female throng of fans crushed forward as far as was physically possible in a mad rush to make contact.
Things settled down as the band left the stage, leaving Owen alone on a stool with an acoustic guitar. Reminiscing about his family, he recalled his mother driving him to Nashville so he could pursue his career, while he said everything he could think of to relieve her concerns.
"If she was here tonight, she would see that her son is doing just fine," said Owen, who then opened up his family circle to include the crowd, thanking them for missing out on a Yankees game to see the show, saying, "We can all be one big-ass family" and delivering a solo-acoustic version of the Hank Williams Jr. standard "Family Tradition." By the time the rabble-rousing tune -- with site-specific lyric alterations about the Yankees beating the Orioles -- was done, a particularly enthusiastic fan had tossed a bra onstage. When the band returned, the party vibe was quickly kicked into overdrive with Owen's other 2011 No. 1 single, "Barefoot Blue Jean Night," and the new EP cut "Pass a Beer," a honky-tonk/hip-hop blend that found Owen coming off like a countrified Beastie Boy.
The most heart-tugging moment of the evening came in the middle of the piano-led ballad "Heaven." Owen called out to a young fan he'd noticed singing along to every song and brought him up onstage to finish the tune with him. When the overwhelmed admirer returned to his place in the crowd, an orgy of excited hugs and high-fives followed between him and his friends.
The energy level was amped back up with "Apple Pie Moonshine" and the AC/DC-esque riffs of the roof-raising rocker "Nobody Feeling No Pain," though the set closed on a more contemplative note with the soul-flavored slow-burner "Don't Think I Can't Love You," a No. 2 hit from Owen's 2009 album, Easy Does It.
Any notion of decorum went out the door with the encore, however. After returning to the stage for a breathless romp through 2009's "Eight Second Ride," Owen brought out both Florida Georgia Line and Love and Theft to join in on a faithful, fired-up version of Van Halen's '80s blockbuster "Jump." While his keyboard player took the spotlight onstage wielding an undeniably '80s-looking keytar, Owen decided to go crowd surfing, leaping atop the audience and allowing himself to be passed over the heads of the fans.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire evening came after Owen was deposited back on his feet and he demonstrated an even more intense commitment to his fans. Before the band had even stopped playing, he was already back amongst the audience, eagerly autographing everything from a handbag to a female fan's cowboy boot.
Owen kept at it for a good while, slapping hands and signing away as the band vamped along patiently. When he finally made his way up to the stage for a last triumphant moment with his tourmates on this opening night, it was brick-on-the-head obvious to all in attendance that one of the main reasons Owen's fans have followed him through his stylistic twists and turns is that he seems to care as much about them as they do about him.